City Paper is not for tourists
I have a 2 dollar bill (for good luck)
I have a magic rock
I have a necklace of mystic stones
I have a woman who is a hundred years old,
who I don’t know, praying for me
I have six books of spiritual healing
and I have been hoping for forever
I have a two dollar bill (brand new)
I have cancer
The Lombardi Cancer Center is one of the best cancer treatment facilities in the world, a beacon of efficiency in a town that specializes in the exact opposite. The facility is part of the equally renowned Georgetown University Hospital, concealed from the rest of the city by sprawling woods. It’s Monday here, and the section of the center reserved for blood infusions is filled with patients attached to tubes the color of cherry Kool-Aid.
It is also poet and activist Gaston Neal’s birthday. But there are no noisemakers or balloons, no cone-shaped hats or banners dangling from the ceiling. The lymphoma he was diagnosed with late last year has left him feeling a little weak the past few days. So instead of partying it up, Neal is pondering his years while piddling with a tube that stretches from his chest to a plastic bag filled with the red stuff. “I’ve always been afraid of getting cancer,” he says, glancing to his left at nothing in particular. “And it’s deep that my biggest fear came true.”
But Neal isn’t down. He knows that the past few months have been the equivalent of a John Elway performance. Indeed, when they first brought Neal into the facility, it was the beginning of the fourth quarter and the scoreboard read Lymphoma 28, Neal 3. That’s when the battle really started.
“See that woman over there, man?” he says, motioning toward an unfortunate patient all but draped over an oxygen tank. “That’s how I came in here. I was in bad shape.” The scars of his illness remain even as he pushes back its threat. His trademark goatee, and the full head of hair that once made him lionlike, gigantic, are gonenecessary victims of chemotherapy.
But the fiery disposition and the stories that built it remain. Those too seemed at risk when cancer had him on the run, but now, less than a year after being diagnosed, Neal is up and moving at will, giving readings around the city, and rehashing his life on radio talk shows. In a few months, his doctors say he might even be able to come off the chemotherapy. It’s the fourth quarter, three minutes to go, the scoreboard reads Lymphoma 28, Neal 24, and Neal is driving.
Comeback is an old friend of Neal’s. Draw a line graph of his life, and at each point you’ll find a seemingly preposterous incident that mocks reality.
Neal has done stints in reform school and in jail in Roanoke, Va. He has drunk cheap wine with Allen Ginsberg on the Mall and been thrown into St. Elizabeths Hospital (in the same room that poet Ezra Pound was in a few years earlier), only to be released and become a spark in the Black Power movement. Legend has it Neal knows the dude who invented Mumbo sauce.
His footprint is still visible on the landscape of contemporary American culture. Neal and his fellow travelers built the New School of African-American Thought, which Neal’s old buddy Amiri Baraka calls “one of the most innovative institutions of its time.”
And somehow in the middle of it all he managed to scribble a few bits of verse and earn a rep on the underground literary scene. Neal dabbled with the Beats for a while and then became a motivating force in the Black Arts movement. Flip through the anthology Black Fire, the primary text for students of the Black Arts movement, and you’ll find Neal’s poetry sitting pretty.
Neal has been as much a progenitor of history as an eyewitness. Dismiss Forrest Gump’s country accent, give him about a hundred more IQ points, paint him the color of a lemon drop, and you’ve got Gaston Neal. A man who has lived many times over. Peer into many pictures of black cultural and artistic history and you’ll see Neal, laid back in the cut maybe, but there nonetheless.
But Neal has died a few times, too. A serious romance with heroin just about laid him out before cancer ever came knocking. Four marriages have exacted an emotional price, both on him and the women to whom he’s been married. He concedes that his roller-coaster lifestyle probably played a role in his current health status. As with the lymphoma, he wears the scars of battle all over himnot as albatrosses, but as medallions, shiny medals of remembrance that hang fittingly.
WDCU Jazz 90 is D.C.’s only all-jazz station. Like Neal’s, the station’s future is uncertain, but they both seem to be humming along nicely for now. Neal is an old friend of Jazz 90’s who will be coming by to pay and receive respects. I’m lounging on the couch waiting for Neal to arrive. He was supposed to be here at 2 p.m.; I don’t know what time it is, but I know it’s way past that. I’m asleep when he finally walks in. “Gaston Neal!” someone shouts, interrupting my slumber. Neal smiles and makes his way into Jazz 90’s sound studio.
His appearance today will hopefully drum up some ticket sales for the benefit being held in his honor the following week. The show’s host is asking him the usual questions and getting the usual responses. But when he mentions Pittsburgh, Neal’s eyes flash and he jumps into an instant reverie. A town most known for its hulking steel mills, Pittsburgh is also a place where some mighty literature and music has been forged. The names read like a litany of bad muthafuckas: Ahmad Jamal, Billy Eckstine, August Wilson, John Edgar Wideman.
When Elizabeth Truman and Gaston Neal Sr. migrated to Pittsburgh from the South, they couldn’t know that their youngest would one day be part of that grand tradition. They were refugees fleeing a mob of white people who had murdered Gaston Sr.’s brother. “My mother had just been burned out of her house,” says Neal. “They wanted my grandmother and grandfather to get off the plantation. They didn’t move fast enough, and they burned all their possessions. They just burned ’em out.”
The couple fled north to Chicago, then finally settled in Pittsburgh. Truman had lost one son in Chicago, birthed a daughter, and then gotten pregnant again. The year was 1934, and the line graph of Neal’s life begins here.
As a master tailor, Neal’s father landed well in Pittsburgh, owning his own shop and making good money. While far from rich, the family did better than many. But almost immediately, the graph began to plot its way south. “The Depression came,” says Neal, “and it wiped them out. I don’t have heavy memories of that time. But I remember we were doing bad. Our lights were turned off; we used kerosene.”
Gaston Sr.’s pride also became an obstacle. “He wouldn’t take a job. My daddy wouldn’t work for anybody, because he always had his own,” says Neal. “Then finally, I guess he had to take care of family, he got a helluva job. He was making $52 a week. That was a helluva lotta money back then.” The family was ecstatic, but it wasn’t to last. “He had the job for about a year,” says Neal. He pauses to collect his words, draws in a breath of air. “Then he came down with cancer.”
Neal’s father passed away in 1945, and the graph headed further south. His mother was forced to take a job cleaning bus terminals and the houses of wealthy white people. Her preoccupation with finding enough money for the family meant an absence of parental attention, but it was the loss of his father that marked Neal most deeply. His father had been more than a mentor; he had been a sympathetic ear that his son had clung to. “My mother’s solution to everything was to whip my ass,” he recalls in a voice that reflects no self-pity, just the cold fact of the way things were.
He recalls an instance while his father was still alive when his mother sent Neal to the market for ice cream. He got the ice cream, but got distracted by a group of gypsies selling snake oil. By the time he got back, the ice cream had become a hot milkshake. “She told my father, ‘Neal, get up and whip his ass!’ He ain’t wanna whip me, but she made him get up and handed him the strap. ‘Hey man,’ I cried. But I wasn’t crying ’cause it hurt. I was crying because he was in so much pain.”
With his father out of the picture, Neal’s mother refused to take welfare and worked nights. Neal, who describes himself as having been a sensitive and imaginative kid, was scared to stay home by himself. “I was scared to be in the house,” he recalls. “I thought Dracula or the Wolfman were coming to eat me up. She’d go to work at 11 at night and get back at 6 the next morning, and I would stay up all night and sit outside. I started running with the bad kids, [but] even they would go in around 4. I’d still be out there.”
In addition to street life, Neal was cultivating an interest in books and politics. It was a door his father had opened; before he died he would read to Neal at night. Moreover, their house was always filled with what Neal calls “race men.” They would gather for an evening, talking about the changing times and the lot of black folk. Though far from Garveyites or Nation of Islam types, these men were still keenly aware that America specialized in screwing them over. Neal would overhear things and not fully understand what he was taking in, but these snatches would eventually provide the building blocks for his politics and his poetry. His mother took pride in his burgeoning intellectual life, but she was none too impressed with what he was doing with the rest of his time.
One day, Neal and his friends were caught breaking into the school gym to play basketball. “When the judge said, ‘Ma’am, do you think you can handle your kid?’ each mother would get up and say, ‘Yeah.’ When they asked my mother, she said, ‘No,’” he recalls. At age 12, Neal was sent to the Pennsylvania State Boys Training School.
Even though he ended up there for all the wrong reasons, he excelled at the training school and impressed the officials there. And the street knowledge he had acquired allowed him to make his way through some tough territory. “Being a li’l skinny yellow nigga in that school, where people get they ass whipped all the time and get fucked, I had to use my survival skills,” he says. “I already had a certain viciousness about me. When I used to hang out in the alley with the kids and [one] would say my daddy was a white man, I’d pick up a brick and bash him over his head.”
When he left reform school, the school officials had him placed in a magnet school for smart kids. While it seemed like a break, Neal says he never felt more out of place in his whole life. He dropped out of high school, joined the army, and was eventually stationed in D.C. He brought with him a woman he had gotten pregnant back in Pittsburgh.
The marriage lasted a few years, produced another child, and then fell apart. Neal attributes its failure to “romantic notions” about marriage. In order for her to get welfare, Neal’s wife suggested that he “disappear.” It was a gambit that left Neal mighty jaded, but it was only the beginning of a long series of losses and gains, each one more costly and more fantastic than the last.
Neal finishes on the radio and pronounces himself ready to give a tour of all his old hangoutsa sort of historical tour of his misadventures.
“We ready?” he asks, a smile of expectation breaking across his face. “Well, let’s get it on, then.”
When we head over to my crib in a friend’s car, Neal looks up at my building. “You live here, man?” he says. I nod my head. “I used to get high here.” My friend Brian and I bust out laughing.
As I enter my apartment, I stare at the stereo and wonder whether Neal, many moons younger, sat in the spot where my stereo is now, nodding from heroin hits.
We head down to 14th, a few blocks from U Street, and stop at a boarded-up strip. A black building, abandoned years ago, sports a “Do Not Enter Under Penalty of Law” sign. A few folks mill around on the block. Neal walks over to the building. He knows it well. Twenty years ago, it disappeared into the urban camouflage of condemned buildings. But for Neal, the place is still alive with a movement he and some buddies sparked ages ago. In 1965, they founded the New School for African-American Thought here.
Two years earlier, Neal had been stuck in St. Elizabeths Hospital. He had pleaded insanity to a bullshit drug charge in 1959, and the court had bought it. He had escaped once, run up to Pittsburgh, and then returned. Now he was watching the March on Washington on television.
Always somewhat politically aware, Neal knew that times were changing. But as long as he was in St. E’s, he wasn’t going to be a part of it. “It was at that moment,” he says, “watching the March on Washington, that I dedicated my life to the struggle.” Watching television in the nuthouse seems like a strange circumstance for an epiphany, but Neal never took the straight route.
The New School, conceived as an alternative to ways of thinking that had kept blacks oppressed for centuries, attracted community members and black artists and intellectuals from around the country. “We ended up attracting teachers from Howard. See, they could come teach things here that they couldn’t teach at Howard because Howard would throw ’em out,” says Neal.
You can almost see the intensity of the day in his face as he recollects. “Students started cutting class at Howard to take classes here.” he says. “All the revolutionaries would be standing right out here. Stokely, Eldridge Cleaver, Baraka. You name it, they were here.” Washington was still in the hands of white overseers, but it was seen as a nexus for black thinkers and organizers. Many of the new paradigms in black self-determination took root right here in the District.
By the late ’60s, the Black Arts movement was in full swing. In his essay “And Shine Swam On,” Larry Neal (no relation) had declared that poets would no longer sit back and be the journalists for the revolution, they would be participants. They would not reflect the movement, they would exhort it, they would encourage it, and ultimately they would become it.
Neal fashioned himself after this artist/activist modela tradition that was well established in Africa and Latin America. Only here did poets seek to detach themselves from the reality they claimed to be writing about. So Neal would one moment be on the corner of U Street reading his poetry and the next be blocking that very same street so Muhammad Ali could address a rally.
The New School offered classes for the community and was a hangout for the city’s black-powerites. It lasted until 1972, around the time most black-power groups either fell apart or took a back seat to a swelling black middle class that claimed its houses in the ‘burbs and declared the battle over.
Those who didn’t fall apart on their own were destroyed by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s COINTELPRO. While Hoover is best remembered for the number he did on the Black Panther Party, he took more than a few shots at other black-power groups.
According to Neal, the New School was one of them. “Tragedy happened here,” he whispers as we walk past the darkened façade.
“The government bugged our phones, they sent agents to infiltrate us. I remember an intelligence agent who knew me and saw me downtown one day. He used to love to come into the school and listen to the music or whatever.
“One night he said he came in to hear the music,” Neal recalls. “It was dark when he came in, but when the music stopped and the lights came up he said he saw at least seven other agents. He said all he could do was put his hat down and get the fuck outta there, because if they saw him they would ask why he was there. That let me know how much we were bugged and how many people in our organization were snitches.”
The New School fell apart under the weight of fueding and infiltration, as did so many other incipient groups of its day. Neal didn’t escape the violence that was very much a part of life in those times. He was viciously beaten by a group he had fingered as agents provocateurs. It was the last straw.
“After six or seven years of having no money, you’re worn down,” says Neal shaking his head. “The government wears you down with the agents, the provocateurs, the fights.”
The New School closed its doors in 1972, but despite its ignominious end Neal believes it had a significance that endures as nothing else he did. “It wasn’t enough for me to just be a poet,” says Neal. “I had to come down to the community and build an institution. If you’re going to leave a cultural legacy or a political legacy, then you have to leave something. Even if it’s no more than a strong memory.”
Neal was through with the mess in D.C. for the time being, but he wasn’t ready to quit. He packed his bagsand his one-man revolutionand headed south to Roanoke, Va. Black citizens in Roanoke had heard about the New School and wanted Neal to organize something similar in their town. For three years he worked in the community, pulling the school togetherconstantly under the surveillance of the FBI, a campaign that was undergirded by the harassment of the local police.
“The FBI came down and went to all my neighbors and told them, ‘There’s this evil guy in town,’” says Neal. “One time, I happened to be sitting in the kitchen of this elderly couple’s homeit was a beautiful day like todaywhen up the walk came these two white guys in ties and suits. They asked them if they could come in and talk to them.
“They said, ‘We’d like to talk to you about your neighbor up the street. You don’t know about this guy, but we know about him.’ So they started pulling out these files and pictures, showing me at the New School, showing me blocking the streets. They had transcripts of me in meetings, taking me all out of context, and I’m back in the kitchen listening to all this,” he recalls with amusement.
The police eventually threw Neal in jail on what he recalls as a trumped-up charge. Lesser men might have folded, might have cut a deal with the police to fly to some distant island and never raise hell in the U.S. again. But Neal wouldn’t back down. In jail, he started political education classes, initially teaching black history. But as the classes became more popular and white prisoners began attending, the classes morphed into a history of working and oppressed peoples across the globe. As he remembers it, the thoroughly frustrated prison officials shortened his sentence and kicked him out of jail to stop the classes.
After three years in Roanoke, Neal headed back to Chocolate City. For almost 10 years he had been under siege by federal and local authorities. He had been beaten and harassed, seen his organizations infiltrated, and watched friendswho once stood back to back against the “fascist pigs”draw guns and murder each other. Amid the ruins of what he had built and the devastation wrought by neglect, he came back and attempted to establish another political organization. Neal might have been a good teacher, but he hadn’t learned his lesson.
He returned to the neighborhood where the New School had blossomed and found it flooded with drug fiends. In this new age, Neal was seemingly out of step with the times. The false hopes of the ’70s gave black people what they had always wanted: the chance to participate in society, no matter how morally bankrupt that society might be. Neal raged against the machine his partners now bought into. He was like a pug out of an old boxing flick, tragic and heroic. But the bell had rung long ago. Neal now had a hole in his life that he found himself filling with heroin.
I saw the best minds of my generation
destroyed by madness,
starving hysterical naked
dragging themselves through
the Negro streets at dawn
looking for an angry fix…
The 1400 block of Girard Street NW is as hot as two saunas. On any day, you can wander through (though it might not be the best move) and be proffered an assortment drugs. As we ride up 14th, approaching Girard, Neal points to a high-rise apartment building. “See that joint?” he says. “I saw 10 people get shot there.” I think to myself that these were not revolutionaries who went out in a hail of gunfire screaming, “Off the pig!” These were fiends who caught hot ones ’cause they owed somebody loot, dealers who stepped on somebody else’s turf, or innocents somehow caught up in the heroin madness.
We turn onto Girard with a bit of trepidation and pull up in front an old five-story apartment complex. In front, a contingent of cornrowed heads mills about, probably up to nothing in particular, but certainly not taking donations for the Salvation Army. I suddenly notice how hot it is outside. Neal is unfazed. It’s been almost 20 years since he lived in this building. His daughter Damali was born here. A blessing no doubt, but one bestowed at a time that seemed rife with curses.
Neal had messed around with drugs on and off for some years. But with everything that had defined him by now turned to roadkill, the dope became his life. In the late ’70s, Neal was suffering from, as he puts it, “battle fatigue.” “When you put your life into the struggle, you live and breathe it,” explains Neal. “When it stops, and you’re not living and breathing anymore, can you imagine what a big chunk out of your life that is? You feel powerless.”
Only a few years earlier, Neal had organized protests against the movie Superfly for its glamorization of the drug life. Now Neal found himself nodding in shooting galleries and telling the other dope fiends old tales about organizing the community and fighting the police. “Most of ’em knew who I was,” says Neal. “They would tell me, ‘You got no business being here.’ All of ’em protected me from getting robbed and all. They’d say [to the would-be robber], ‘Man, you can’t do this. That man served for us out on the streets. He may be in here shooting right now, but that man gave his life out there for us.’ Many times that happened.”
Even as he slipped under a cloud of opiates, Neal continued his community work, after a fashion. At one point, he had been given money by a local foundation to publish his poetry. Neal says he used the money instead to march the kids from the neighborhood up to a store a few blocks away and buy shoes.
I ask him about the contradiction of fighting against drugs in the community and at the same time being a user. “I was sick,” he retorts. “You’re assuming that I had control, that I can stop at any time I want. But it’s a sickness. It ain’t something you can stop when you want. It wasn’t something I wanted to be. But sooner or later I had to come upon the truth that it is indeed in your hands, and you have to decide if you can fight this disease.”
His addiction contained its share of irony. Throughout his life, Neal had refused to submit to external forces. He would not be beaten by his father’s death, not by reform school, not by St. Elizabeths, not by the government. Now, he looked in the mirror and decided he wouldn’t submit to heroin, either. With a growing daughter and two sons he had not been able to raise, Neal got out. He checked into a clinic, and joined Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous. He took a job in the city government working for the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Administration.
As we stand in front his old crib, Neal tells a story about how he once saw a dude fleeing some drug dealers leap out a fourth-floor window. “He hit the ground. And it’s dirt here now,” he says, “but then it was concrete. The dude pulled some bags of garbage over him, and by the time the other dudes came down to look for him, the cops were there, so they had to split. That dude shattered his legs and some bones in his back. I still see him today wandering the streets with a walker.”
As we talk, a young guy rides over on a beat-up Huffy. He listens for a second, then says to Neal, “It seems like a lotta people who used to live here been coming back around. This street’s got a lotta stories.” Neal nods, the whole time looking the kid up and down. Then the wrinkles on his forehead tighten as his lips curl into a question: “Who your father, man?”
“Slough,” the kid replies.
“Man, I knew Slough. Slough tried to kill me one time.”
Today is Sundaya holy day. One when family and friends gather in churches to say thank you for being blessed to witness another week. Cramton Auditorium may lack the raiment of a church, but Neal’s family and numerous friends certainly qualify as a spiritual community. The press release dubs it a “cultural reunion,” but it’s more than that.
If somebody were to drop a bomb on Cramton at this moment, it would erase nearly every living trace of the Black Arts movement. Representing for the old school are BAM giants Amiri Baraka, Ntozake Shange, and Sonia Sanchez. Representing for the young lions (well, relatively young) are Kenny Carroll and DJ Renegade, for whom Neal has been a link to the struggles of the past.
I’m trying to wrangle Baraka into an interview, but he’s proving elusive. When I finally do nail him down, a crew of poets and musicians slowly gravitates toward us as we talk. A discussion on Neal’s importance ensues. “I’ve known Gaston, like, 40 years,” says Baraka. He looks over at Renegade squinting. “It’s hard to even say that. Forty years, man. He’s a great person; I wish he had published more books. But I know the reason he hasn’t published more books is because it’s taken Gaston a lotta strength to get through life. He’s been an underground poet.”
“I met Gaston maybe about 35 years ago,” says sax player Kenny Fisher with a smile as he clutches his instrument bag. “He came up to me and my band and said, ‘Man, I wanna read some poetry with y’all.’ And we had never heard of anything like that, jazz and poetry. And it just clicked. We went to, like, coffee houses and community events all over Pittsburgh, and we been friends ever since.”
I ask Fisher if he minds giving his age. “Fifty-seven,” he replies.
“He lyin’, man,” says a smiling Baraka, who declines to tell the exact circumstances of his and Neal’s first meeting. “I don’t even wanna tell you,” he says. “Let’s just say we magnetized around poetry and things young people do when they ain’t got no sense. Gaston had just come out the nuthouse, and he had these broke glasses he would wear.”
“That’s how he was when I met him,” interjects a laughing Fisher. By now a pretty large group of folks has gathered around, including Shange and Abiodun Oweyole, an original member of the Last Poets.
“Is this an all-boys party?” asks Shange, looking at Baraka.
“Naw, you can sit here,” says Baraka, getting up from his seat. Shange feigns disappointment at not being allowed to sit on Baraka’s lap.
“Baby, he scared of you. His wife is here,” jokes Oweyole. The laughter is interrupted when a stage manager tells the performers to make their way to a room backstage, since the show (already an hour late) is about to start.
The performances roll. It’s a hellacious lineup, and a long one, too; the show spans almost five hours. I think how a man could fly to Chicago and back and this affair would still be going. But the length of the program is a tribute to Neal and what he has set out over the years, both as an activist and as a writer.
The show, already airborne, heads even higher during Neal’s performance of a poem about a world-class tap dancer who is a junkie and tap dances for coins. Neal is backed by his old buddy Fisher on sax, a drummer, a bass player, and a tap dancer. Each time Neal finishes a verse, the dancer erupts into a fury of clicking steps and shakes, then calms into a slow blues step. The crowd is with him all the way, and it’s all meshing together. Neal stares the young dancer down, looks him straight in the eye. “Hey man,” he smirks, “you lucky I forgot my shoes.”CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: James Watts.